Tertius Kapp Talks About Writing Gaia

Awarded the highest prize for literary achievement in the Afrikaans language, the Hertzog prize, for his multiple award-winning Rooiland and Oorsee, Tertius Kapp has carved a successful career for himself as the screenwriter of Dis Ek Anna and Griekwastad, he now takes us on a mindblowing journey with the ecological horror fantasy Gaia.

Tertius Kapp attended one of the first workshops done by The Writing Studio in 1999 at the Longkloof Studios, hosted by filmmaker Dirk De Villiers. 

Watch Gaia on SHOWMAX / Read more about Gaia / Visit his website

Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with Tertius Kapp about Gaia

What inspired you to write Gaia

I wouldn’t say there was a single moment. 

There was a lot of research into discoveries in mycology (the study of fungi), plant biology, psychedelics and ritual, all of which contributed to building the world of Gaia. I was fascinated by the communication in the fungal network, which resembles a form of intelligence, almost alien, but right here on earth. 

The ecological theme actually entered a bit later in the development process. Both Jaco and I really liked the Abrahamic story of Isaac and the Binding, and we knew that we wanted to work with this claustrophobic fear of living with one other human being, who is probably insane. It feels as if that actually announced itself as a metaphor for the ecological crisis, the notion of sacrificing the next generation for the blind faith of the current one.  

I had been working with the idea of a hermit, a recluse, who had a singular devotion to a cause, to the point that it becomes a psychosis. From a literary point of view, I have a perverse fascination with manifestos, like the Unabomber one. It’s a bit like finding Jack Torrance’s written pages in The Shining: real-world horror scripts, giving us a glance into the worldview of the mad. 

And then I had the idea: what if this character (Barend) simply knew that God lives in the forest, and was speaking to him, albeit in a voice we couldn’t understand? 

Gaia is described as an ecological horror fantasy that makes human history irrelevant – the flowers at the end of the Anthropocene. Tell me more about this? 

Science is bringing us information our minds can’t comprehend, with increasing frequency. I admit I have a bit of a thing for time on the mega-scale, the long before, the long after. There are these analogies like if the universe were a day, humans came about four seconds before midnight. I have some background in archaeology, which has always fed into these perspectives. 

And yet it appears to us that all of history was building up to us, it’s a crowning achievement, which is obviously anthropocentric. In the case of Gaia, the idea developed: what if human history – all of this progress, of building and inventing, colonizing the entire planet – what if, in the end, it served only as a stage in the reproductive cycle of another organism? What if we’re just the dispersal mechanism?

The sombre tone of “the flowers at the end of the anthropocene” is quite cheeky, but it feeds into an interesting space of ritual. I do think we carry this guilt for the harm we are causing to earth, and subconsciously, some people crave absolution. 

It’s a brilliant exploration of the human condition, taking us on an emotional and physical journey when the characters confront the power of Mother Nature.  Your view on this?

Thank you very much. I think we wanted to push the characters to their limits, in terms of their understanding of the world and their place in it. We worked with body horror, ideas of invisible contagion that could already be inside of you before you know it, transgressing the boundary of the skin. That raised the stakes of the conflict too – if it takes me, it can take everyone. 

We could have a character picking off a small fungus that had been growing on her arm, but that carries huge stakes, both to herself and the world. After seeing the end product of the infection, the Apostle monsters, the smallest itch becomes terrifying. 

And then suddenly a global pandemic struck and that is what we were all feeling! 

Gaia oozes with sexual tension that simmers between a woman attracted to a youthful stranger and her young Adonis’ sexual awakening.  Your views on this?

So glad you mention it. One of the reviews at SXSW called the film “yonic” which is quite nice (Google it!)

We are dealing with this ancient, pre-human organism that is ready to spread, to reproduce, using humans as its carriers. But we are also dealing with an adolescent boy, reaching sexual maturity, with no frame of reference, no interaction with his peers, growing up inside the twisted vision of his father. So Stefan’s first sight of Gabi shifts his entire world, and we can feel them wanting to fuck from an early stage, even if they don’t understand it as such. His desire is very human, endearing even, and he brings her little gifts in some clumsy attempt to woo and nurture her. 

Of course, this represents hope – for a future, for procreation – which goes against his father’s misanthropy, and his need to retain control over his son. 

No doubt the deceased mother looms large in the boy’s consciousness, an Oedipal force drawing him in. The age gap is also quite deliberate. The older man/younger woman trope is so overplayed, that we wanted to subvert it in an interesting way. It’s loaded and it’s messy and it’s sexy and confusing, which I like. 

Alex van Dyk in Gaia

There’s also a sense of desperation between the loss of control and power, losing the power to control others, and gaining the power to destroy the bond formed between strangers. Your views on this.

I think desperation is a fitting word. Because we wanted to keep the film claustrophobic and small, the basis of a relationship between two people, disturbed by the arrival of a third, was at the heart of the story. That has some elements of Eden in it, and we consciously thought about these ideas of paradise and seduction in our setup. 

This disturbance features throughout the film, in various ways. Gabi chooses to speak Afrikaans if she wants Stefan to understand, or English if she doesn’t. Barend pretends to his son that there is no outside world, so when she shows him pictures on her phone, of her living a fairly normal life, drinking with friends, going to the beach, Stefan’s mind is blown, both by the technology and the alluring images he sees. 

This becomes a turning point when Barend smashes the device in his rage and realizes she has to go. His fascism could thrive when they were two, it turns to desperation now they are three. 

There’s tangible suspense that drives the story from its opening to its ending, keeping a firm balance between an unknown force that spirals into chaos, and the violence that erupts. Your views on this.

It’s a bit of a balancing act. You find yourself trading off mystery for suspense or action, and there are many unpredictable factors that determine which one will pull you through.

With Gaia we knew we were building up to that violent ending, and wanted to explore other sensations along the way. The world had a lot to show, teasing out revelations, desires and rituals. By the time we reach the climax, it has hopefully acquired its full significance.  

Gaia was named Best Horror Movies of 2021 by Variety.  Also the Asteroide Award for Best Film at the Trieste Science+Fction Festival, Italy in 2021, and Best Feature Film at the Silwerskerm Film Festival in 2022.  Recognition of this stature is always rewarding. Your views.

Yes, incredible recognition, to be listed along films such as A Quiet Place II, Titane, etc. is perhaps something that hasn’t quite landed with us yet. One goes through months, or rather years, of uncertainty with a film, so when this does happen, it feels like there is a satisfying conclusion to the process. And the affirmation at least gives you confidence in your vision. 

Gaia is not a film that aims at the commercial bullseye, but one hopes for other forms of reward. One reviewer suggested that it might be South Africa’s cult film or something along those lines. That would be amazing if it were to become like a Withnail and I or A Clockwork Orange in our local scene. Secretly one hopes to make a film that people still talk about – and watch – thirty years down the line. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

Tell me about the journey from page to screen, was it a difficult one?

It started out quite well. We’d done location scouts, table reads, figured out the financial structures and so forth, and we were filming nicely even as we were slipping and sliding in the mud of the Tsitsikamma forest. 

Then, nine days in, the first lockdown was announced, and from that moment on it was a rollercoaster. We had to pack up, send everyone home with what we were able to pay them, and prepare for uncertainty. 

We took the optimistic route, putting things in place for when the film would be finished. So we cut a ‘sizzle reel’ which got us a sales agency, and started planning a festival strategy while keeping an eye on the forest for continuity’s sake! There was a lot of support from M-net throughout those difficult months. 

It was also a benefit to be able to take the time to look at the footage before finishing the shoot. Then again, in order to make our reduced shooting schedule, I had to cut 11 pages out of an already short script. 

There were various other challenges too: we were basically the first film to start shooting again with CoVid regulations, and we had lost hero locations due to the lockdown and had to find new ones on the fly. 

But it could have gone much worse so many times. We felt both cursed or blessed, but I think more of the latter. 

Tell me about your working relationship with Jaco Bouwer during the writing of the screenplay and filming?

Jaco and I complement each other very well, and we’ve worked together from the play Rooiland in 2011/12, doing theatre, TV series (Die Spreeus, 4 Mure) and TV films (Rage, Somerkersfees). 

We always push each other to find new frontiers of storytelling, searching for interesting things at the edge of other people’s imagination. We both like to break the rules, not just to be contrarian, but to innovate and test the possibilities.

Something that was quite unusual, is that we were location scouting long before I started writing, so the world was growing in our minds long before it got locked into a narrative. 

What’s great about working with Jaco is the freedom of thought we embrace.

We are not afraid of edgy content or unusual philosophies: with Gaia we were talking about such disparate issues: deep ecology, zombie fungi, sacrifice and ritual, which one then tries to package into a coherent storyline! 

Park ranger (Monique Rockman) encounters two survivalists following a post-apocalyptic lifestyle. The boy (Alex van Dyk) and his philosophical father (Carel Nel). seem to have their own religion and a mysterious relationship with nature. There are many suspicious aspects to their existence, but when the cabin is attacked by strange, post-human beings one night, she learns that there is a greater threat in this emergent wilderness.

You were also a producer on Gaia. Does that allow you to have more control over what happens to your screenplay once it transforms into film?

Yes, of course. Being part of the decision-making, and knowing what is happening to your project is great – usually, you have little idea of what is going on. But it also brings a lot of stress, especially the first time, especially when things go wrong.

In this case, I think a more prudent producer might have pulled the plug, even before we started shooting, or cut his losses and waited when the pandemic happened. But we were too stubborn. So this really was a baptism of fire: we disrupted industry models, navigated a global pandemic, and stuck through with bloody-mindedness. 

The film industry has changed drastically since you wrote Griekwastad? Your view on this?

It has, although Griekwastad was probably one of the first films to premiere exclusively on home viewing, and did quite well for it. 

Even before this, any local film was up against superheroes from two universes at the theatres and usually did quite poorly. I mean, I love the theatre, but I’m bored with explosions. Thank God for the Labia which brings us great films on a big screen. 

On the other hand, a more distributed model (home viewing) does allow you to find your niche audience, without having to bring them together in a room for the money to make sense. Perhaps the loss is felt more strongly in places like the US, where indie film theatres and the cinema experience are a much bigger thing. 

Do you think that the surfacing of films being streamed virtually and released in cinemas, opens up more possibilities for screenwriters in SA?

Probably. I hope local writers get the opportunity. There should be a content boom over the next few years as the streamers compete with each other, then gobble each other up or find new ways of co-operating. Let’s hope it doesn’t end in a monopoly. 

What’s next?

I’m working on several projects, but it’s pre-emptive to name anything, as the majority of scripts one writes never get made. 

There’s a lot of bullshit to navigate in the film industry. Even after the success – commercial and artistic – of Gaia, it’s tough to get a new project off the ground, to convince financiers and buyers of your vision. We are so grateful for someone like Jan du Plessis at M-net, who shared the Gaia vision from the start. 

So, let’s just say I have something that shares some chromosomes with Gaia, without it being a sequel. I’m also working on an arthouse action film and starting a TV series next month. I can’t share titles yet, as they are all works-in-progress!   

For most writers, it’s a reality that the majority of scripts one writes never get made. What is your advice on staying motivated? To keep on writing no matter what.

I’m not sure how writers stay motivated, to be honest. It’s probably one of the more demeaning and less understood positions in the film chain. 

You can spend a lot of time working on a script, going through several drafts, but you’re still subject to the varying whims and tastes of a director/producer/content exec. And it has always pissed me off and continues to, that in the world of film, authorship is assigned to the director alone, e.g. “A Johnny the Director Film”, which practically erases the role of the writer. (It’s different in TV, fortunately). 

But that said, it still is immensely satisfying to see your work out there and call this a career. To motivate us, we need to fight for royalties, so that we can have repeat income as is the case in more mature industries. It is also my impression that, with the current increase in content production, the people that matter value writers highly. So that certainly helps. 

That, and realising you can dream up your next job as you make your morning coffee! 

Visit his website